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Activist groups, distrustful of candidates, push for pre-election pledges

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"After the TARP [bank rescue] vote, the auto bailout, it's obvious they had lost their way," says Ryan Hecker, a Houston attorney and tea party activist. "From my perspective, we weren't being represented anymore."

Some 912 tea party groups have rallied around Contract From America, which citizens debated and refined over the Internet. It calls for imposing a statutory cap on the annual increase in federal spending (equal to the sum of inflation plus the percentage of population growth). It puts a moratorium on all "earmarks," or lawmaker pet projects, until the federal budget is balanced. Moreover, it requires a balanced budget, with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike. Signatories include about 200 people running for House seats, 27 for Senate, and 4 for governor.

On the Democratic side, activists are urging candidates to sign a pledge to resist any reductions in Social Security benefits. Aware that Mr. Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is looking at the financial health of the retiree program, among other things, they want to show the strength of congressional opposition to any benefit cuts before the commission issues its report on Dec. 1. The pledges could be valuable, too, when commission recommendations come to a vote, perhaps before the new Congress convenes in January.

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